Home and Away: The Old Town Poems

Yesterday’s doctor’s appointment and today’s rain finally gave me a chance to finish Kevin Miller’s Home and Away: The Old Town Poems. Kevin, “kjm”, is a Tacoma poet who often comments here so I’m not going to pretend I could take an objective view of his latest book. As it turns out, there were quite a few poems that I liked well enough to mark for re-reading. I decided, though, that I would present this one because it gives readers insight into one of the defining characteristics of his book, empathy for others.

CUSTODIANS
for Jon Graham

The custodian leaves a note:
The storage shed is full.
Each letter distinctly cut,
his mark those typewriter g’s.
He wears a backpack vacuum,
listens to swing on headphones,
skips the poems in his New Yorker,
His keys fail to jangle like a movie janitor,
though he tells me stories about John Garfield.
He lives downtown close to the library.
He’s swing shift. Life restarts here early afternoon.
He shares a recipe with the office women,
and the room smells of ribs simmering,
potato salad with three types of onions.
I hear ice sliding into ice after someone
frees a cold beer from the galvanized tub
as he describes watching the parade from his house.
His voice is whisky and cigarettes,
and I walk into the cartoon of my job
when I accidentally interrupt his smoke
behind the dumpster, caught, and he laughs,
holds the cigarette cupped behind his back
as we both did between classes in the sixties.
Days before he crushes his finger moving tables,
he reviews the remake of War of the Worlds.
He waves both hands, ten digits intact,
as he describes the special effects,
praises non-stop action.
In consideration for my biases, he says,
Anyone could have played Cruise’s part.
On lunch duty, the movie game runs in my head.
Harry Dean Stanton plays the custodian.
He’ll need to put on a couple of pounds.
Today’s scene-the parent phone call:
The custodian called my son a little son of a bitch.
Jeff Bridges plays me-it’s my movie.
JB calls Harry into the office. It’s five p.m.
JB says: Sit. I got a phone call.
Harry laughs, embarrassed.
He says: Sorry, Boss, kid kicked the sink.
The little son of a bitch.
Camera pulls back.
Scene fades with laughter.
The lunch lady snatches a sixth grader’s tray,
he is a dollar short in his lunch account.
She plays herself. It’s no movie.
This is my mess to clean up.

I suspect that my 30 years of teaching high school contributes to my appreciation of this poem. I’ve been called into the principal’s office a time or two for exactly the kind of reaction that got the custodian called in, though I don’t think they always turned out quite like this. You’d have to be much more saintly than I ever was to go through a whole career without pissing off a parent or two.

I don’t think I ever actually went to a party at a janitor’s house, but I certainly empathized with their job since that’s how I put myself through college. And though I doubt any of them appreciated what I was teaching,”skips the poems in his New Yorker,” I always enjoyed visiting with them and more than a few times we saw students’ mistreatment of the facilities through the same eyes, unable to understand how any kid could behave that way.

Home and Away is accessible poetry that most people should find enjoyable. If you liked this poem or ones I quoted from his earlier book, get a hold of a copy, either by buying it or getting it from your public library. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Miller’s “Story Problem”

I still have a few poems left to read in Everywhere Was Far but so far this is my favorite:

Story Problem

How far is across when you remember
three bridges out the front window all your life.
How strong is magic that turns checks
into cash when need is collateral.
How distant is away when the Olympics are morning,
the Cascades night. How new is bravery
after the woman learns to walk at fifty-seven,
praises the cool linoleum, then takes her pain
straight up, neat. What's common about common
when a man dresses in a suit for six months
to leave for a lost job. What stage of grief runs
a flat line of miles across Montana.
What good is addition when an only child
sixty-one years later dies an only child.
What equals one story told six ways.

I just love the poem‘s title. Nearly everyone remembers how hard it was to solve “story problems.” Of course, it turned out that real life problems are a hell of a lot harder to solve than those story problems, like how to make a living, how to be brave in the face of immense pain, or how to deal with the loss of a job.

There’s also a natural progression from “interesting“ problems to “heart-wrenching” problems in the poem, from natural curiosity like “how far is across” to “What stage of grief runs/ A flat line of miles across Montana?” The same kind of natural progression that most of us face in our lives as we age.

Miller may not offer any answers, but simply recognizing the problems may make them more bearable.

Everywhere Was Far

Now that the elections are finally over I can get back to something more interesting and closer to home, poetry. Actually since I gave all the money I was willing to give and voted several days ago, I’ve been enjoying myself in many ways unrelated to politics in the last few days.

On the more pleasant side, I’m finally reading Kevin Miller’s Everywhere Was Far. Kevin’s a local Tacoma poet who I met for breakfast earlier this year after Mike introduced us. Obviously I’m a biased reader, but, as noted many times, I probably always am. Still, it’s more fun finding a poem you really like when it’s written by someone you know.

There are actually many poems I like, but here’s my favorite in the first sixty pages:

In Her Garden

After a good rain, goldfinch string
their music through the serviceberry trees.
My wife thinks she's Saint Francis.
She charms the cedar waxwing
which lights close enough to touch.
She tells me Francis' theory of containers,
Take from the full, fill the empty.
This works for her, the music of birds,
a song from Francis, and all those nests
the shape of cupped hands waiting.

Since at times I find myself talking to the birds, I can easily identify with the poet’s wife. Perhaps I like it because it reminds me of a picture and haiku-like poem of Leslie hand feeding a Robber Jay that I posted while we were out cross country skiing years ago. Both seem to celebrate the same quality in someone we love.

Late March at Nisqually

Last Sunday Mike introduced me to local poet Kevin Miller, who he‘d previously told about my web site. After seeing my pictures, Kevin graciously presented me with this poem he’d written about Nisqually Wildlife Refuge:

LATE MARCH

First light on Hawks Prairie, an owl draws a flat line
into a stand of fir. Twin barns reappear on the Delta.

What returns without bidding is as sure as brothers
home to help with heavy chores, and more.

The slip to day catches night flight, paths cross,
chance lifts a curtain and certain structure

rises before dawn's stall keeps the hunter aloft.
Left to the morning, harriers will etch shadow marks

over marsh and sloped roofs. Rainier will float like a white
kite tethered to the river strung east through alder.

Songbirds are a month away. Last season
the path to the Reach gave up the fanned wing

of a barn owl, a morning-after memento
dusting airy repose from the great horned dark.

Unfortunately, I‘ve yet to observe owls in flight, but the hope of seeing an owl flying through the sky, as well as the other sighs Kevin describes draw me back to Nisqually “as sure as brothers/ home to help with heavy chores.“

It was probably mere coincidence,though it doesn’t feel that way, that when I returned to Nisqually the next day I found the owls’ nest that I’ve been hearing about for awhile. Though it was difficult to get a picture of the owl hiding in the dark crotch of a tree, here’s my first attempt at getting a picture, all be it one that required too much lightening in Photoshop to be entirely satisfactory:

I haven’t purchased one of Kevin’s books yet but Everywhere Was Far is available at Amazon.

You can also find a poem entitled No Halo here as well as another poem entitled When My Mother here.